Markovian Parallax Generate: On digital writing and poetics

Description, Inquiry, and Selection: Hejinian’s essay “Strangness” (Part 1)

Posted in Poetics by Eric Goddard-Scovel on March 12, 2008

8352.jpgI’ve been doing some research lately, both to prepare for my MFA thesis next year and to help me get a better sense of what I am doing. Lyn Hejinian’s collection of (for the most part) essays, The Language of Inquiry, has been sitting on my bookshelf since October, and it seems certain that the library will be asking for it back pretty soon. I chose to read “Strangeness” wanting to hear something fresh and intelligent about the term, which is thrown about too often in creative writing circles without carrying any clear meaning. I didn’t finish it yet, but here are my thoughts on it so far.

The essay uses as its examples mostly entries from dream journals and travel journals, and begins by establishing her definition of description as it will be discussed:

Description should not be confused with definition; it is not definitive but transformative. Description … is a particular and complicated process of thinking, being highly intentional while at the same time, because it is simultaneous with and equivalent to perception, remaining open to the arbitrariness, unpredictability, and inadvertence of what appears. Or one might say that it is at once improvisational and purposive. (138-8)

I’ve been writing without the assistance of mchain or gnoetry for a few months now, and I have felt a greater sense of the “improvisational” spirit of description, and a clearer perspective on how the process of writing without computer programs (or other processes using found texts or source texts) differs from processes that use them; it almost seems that one is the inverse of the other in terms of what roles purpose and improvisation play. Though I’m still not quite certain about what this means, I do feel they both work similarly on this next level, what Hejinian calls apprehension:

Vocabulary and grammar are themselves an intense examination of the world and of our perceptual relations within the experience of it. One may agree with Ludwig Benswanger’s aphoristic comment, “To dream means: I don’t know what’s happening to me,” but the description of a dream is intended as a means of finding out.

Description then is apprehension. (139)

Going further with the “specific writing problems” (139) of dreams:

The attempt to describe a dream raises a challenge to selection, questioning not only the adequacy or accuracy of what one (or one’s memory) has selected but the very act of selecting itself, since peripheral items may turn out to be central after all, and because details may have been lost in the instability of the dream terrain or in one’s own forgetfulness. (139-40)

This quote more than any of the others seems especially relevant to the process that I have been employing with mchain since last Fall. I suppose that I could describe it as the purposive and intuitive selection of language and phrases in conjunction with the imposition of missing or lacking pieces added by the author. I could also say that the goal of this process is to construct a dream, or to bring into some kind of focus or framing the vague sense of being found in dreams that is often strange, often lacking “binarisms like form-content, male-female, now-then, here-there, large-small, social-solitary, etc.” (140).

What I am curious about now is how much this process tends towards a poetry that is more about the process of selection than what has been selected and arranged. At some point I need to find out whether this is a problem or a strength; then I can work out what to do about it.

(Post continues in part 2)

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